Students address sensitive subjects head-on—with bravery and candor

students walking on a path lined with trees at Mills College at Northeastern
Students walk through the trees along Richards Road at Mills College at Northeastern University in Oakland, California. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif.—Standing under the soaring ceiling of the Mills Hall living room, surrounded by stately pillars and antique furniture reminiscent of the historic building’s heyday, students addressed sensitive subjects head-on.

“I don’t think anyone is calling for universities to end racism,” said Sydney Sept, a Mills College at Northeastern University senior, answering a question about institutional racism. “What students of color are asking for is support.”

Sept was one of many student presenters at the Race, Gender and Sexuality Senior Thesis Symposium held at Mills Hall earlier this month. Students discussed the topics with bravery and candor. It was a celebratory event, with cake, flowers and balloons, honoring the students’ work. 

“I’m just so proud,” associate adjunct professor Natalee Kehaulani Bauer said. “These are students who are all first-generation college students, working full-time jobs, taking care of parents. They aren’t just regular students.”

The Oakland campus is home to the Mills Institute, which supports transformative learning, advocacy and research. At the symposium, thesis topics ranged from transgender people’s access to accurate medical information, the devastating effects on children whose parents are deported, to the interconnectedness of homosexuals and Jewish people in Nazi Germany.

There were the typical jitters about public speaking, beaming families snapping photos, and the students’ palpable relief after their ambitious presentations were over. 

But as Sept’s comments suggest, this wasn’t your typical college presentation. 

Performative action

Sept, who identifies as Black and is biologically biracial, expounded on her presentation, “Moving Toward Equity in Action: CRT (Critical Race Theory) Pedagogy in DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion).”

The concept of DEI is not new but experienced a resurgence after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Amid the outcry, U.S. companies paid an estimated $3.4 billion in DEI efforts, according to an analysis by PBS NewsHour. DEI experts were hired in record numbers to ensure workplaces were welcoming.

But, Sept said, this heightened interest in DEI work was ultimately “performative,” playing out on Instagram and in company-branded “solidarity statements,” not in action.

“Many of these solidarity statements came with nothing attached,” Sept said.

Sept surveyed four colleges in her home state of Washington, and examined how students of color were supported (or not supported) in having equal access to opportunities and feeling as welcomed as their white counterparts.

Racism doesn’t have to be a direct act of violence based on skin color,” Sept said, explaining a term called “racelighting.” Similar to gaslighting, Sept said, racelighting is directing messages at people of color—subtly or overtly—that reinforce biases aimed at devaluing them. 

Stories not told

Naydelin Sanchez Landaverde’s thesis topic, “Nuestras Historias: The Effects of Deportations on Citizen Children Left Behind,” was a topic close to her heart.

A legal assistant, formerly undocumented for 18 years, Landaverde saw firsthand the devastation that children endured when their parents were deported and they were left behind in the U.S. to fend for themselves.

“Stories of the individuals left behind are not included in research work,” Landaverde said, noting that deportee stories are the ones typically studied.

Landaverde’s approach to research was designed for the ease of her interviewees. She did a podcast and interviewed her subjects in ways convenient to them: between jobs, in their cars, wherever she could squeeze it in during their busy schedules.

She interviewed four Mexican Americans from the Bay Area. The parents of two had been deported and the fathers of two others were deported. In all cases, it was a multiple sibling household and the aftereffects were devastating, with dire economic, social and mental health consequences.

All subjects had to get jobs and work long hours to support their brothers and sisters, their home responsibilities were immense and made it difficult to focus on school and there was no mental health support.

“They felt alone,” Landaverde said.

A different world

Deloris Sharp, an East Oakland resident who identified as a queer Black woman, presented her thesis “A Tale of Education in the Black Community.”

Sharp interviewed eight Bay Area participants, four men and four women, with the research question: if higher education is more accessible, why aren’t more African Americans taking advantage of it?

Of Sharp’s participants, six went to college. The participants reported that they could only envision college for themselves if their parents attended or if they saw people of color in college settings on television.

“Three people said they were influenced to go to college because of ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘A Different World,’” Sharp said. 

Sharp’s conclusion was that Black people need mentors to envision college as a real possibility for them, and access to scholarships to be able to earn a degree.

Accessible information

Noah Snell had 184 people respond to his online survey to explore his thesis, “Learning Everything Online: Trans Community-formed Knowledge About Medical Transition.”

What he discovered was that transgender people looking for reliable information about “top” and “bottom” surgeries were less likely to access and trust information provided by medical professionals and more likely to turn to Reddit and Youtube for easily accessible and anecdotal evidence from other trans people.

“Trans people are experts in their own experiences,” Snell said.

Snell’s respondents cited difficulty in accessing medical information using traditional routes of doctors appointments and consulting specialists. The knowledge base just wasn’t there in the medical community, or their concerns were not considered a legitimate medical problem.

Unhealthy cultures

Romeo Channer, who identified as gay, transgender, and an Azkanazi Jew on their mother’s side, presented a thesis called, “Internal Others: Jews, Homosexuals and (In)visibility in the Nazi Imagination.”

Channer’s research question was: what drives and connects the Nazi fears of Jews and homosexuals?

They drew a parallel between the two historically maligned groups who, in early-1900s Berlin, were both viewed as “contagious illnesses” that resulted from an “unhealthy culture” by the Nazis.

Despite the devastation of the Holocaust and continued homophobia, Channer remembered positive aspects of his research.

“The thing that struck me in a hopeful way was all the Jewish gay men who described being completely embraced by their families in the 1910s,” they said.